It’s one thing to read authors like Solzhenitzyn and Henry Roth in the halcyon days of college, when life is pretty much a carnival. It’s another thing entirely to read depressing books when you are out in the real world, experiencing depressing things as they happen in your own life. That observation explains why I haven’t read a real book in ages. But now I’m older and starting to worry that my brain is atrophying. So I’m taking myself back to school.
The reading of serious books is something that requires practice, and given that I’ve mostly read legal textbooks and romance novels for the past ten years, re-entry into the world of literature has been a brutal slog. I started with one of my brother’s favorites, The Wild Palms, by Faulkner, because it is relatively thin and also sounds like a romance novel. In fact, I think I’ve read a different book called Wild Palms, that took place in Miami. I think it was written by Jackie Collins. Anyway, this Wild Palms was nothing like that Wild Palms. Faulkner’s Wild Palms was trying to tell me serious things via metaphor and allusion that I was no longer well-equipped to understand. Plus, it was super boring. I tried not to feel that I was stupider than I remembered, and went back to square one. I needed something more plot driven, more character-based, more…romantic. Something like Return of the Native, or Edith Wharton-y, or…Wuthering Heights. I love Wuthering Heights. I’m not sure if Bronte ever says it outright in the book, but you just know Heathcliff is one hunky piece of ass.
Anyway, the good thing about serious books you might otherwise forget about is that they often get made into movies. As soon as I saw the trailer for Anna Karenina with Keira Knightley in that fur hat, I remembered. Tolstoy! Of course! I had never read much of the Russians in school, probably because both my parents loved Dostoyevsky. On TV, the book looked good. The people dancing in the ballroom! The snow! The clothes! That settled it. If the book was anything like the trailer for the movie, I knew it would be my perfect entry back into the types of books I wouldn’t be embarrassed to leave out for the housekeeper to see.
So, the book. It’s quite good. It helps that the people who translated my version (Pevear and Volokhonsky) know how to keep a story moving. I stalled at page 17 or so for a couple months, but once I got past the first few chapters, I was super into it. Anna is basically a selfish wench and you can’t help feeling sorry for her poor humiliated husband, especially because her lover Vronsky is SUCH A LOSER. I mean, if there’s a fault with the book, it’s that Anna throws her son away for the 19th-century equivalent of Justin Bieber. The real dreamboat in the book is Levin, the earthy, anti-social idealist who can’t help idealizing the concept of romantic love. The worst thing about the movie, after 1) how ugly they made poor Jude Law and 2) the unfortunate blond moustache they cast as Vronsky, is 3) the weird redheaded guy they cast as Levin. I’m married to a guy who was born a redhead, so I’m not knocking red hair. It’s just that Levin can’t be a redhead. Clive Owen would have been a good Levin. Clive Owen would be a good anything.
Anyway. The project’s working. My book reading muscles are flexing after years of stasis. I can feel myself picking up on underlying themes, and feeling a reawakening appreciation for the written word. Describing Levin’s feelings toward Kitty, Tolstoy writes:
“He knew so well this feeling of Levin’s, knew that for him all the girls in the world were divided into two sorts: one sort was all the girls in the world except her, and these girls had all human weaknesses and were very ordinary girls; the other sort was her alone, with no weaknesses and higher than everything human.”
That’s exactly how Tom feels about me! Who couldn’t appreciate writing like that? There’s a reason they call ’em classics.
This post is so timely for me — I’m on page 93 of the same 817-page translation (most of the other books I’ve read on maternity leave have titles like “Nantucket Nights,” and I thought I should have something more substantial to mention when I return to work in January than announcing that I completed 5 seasons of Mad Men). So how close to the end are you, and is it great? My husband recommended it initially, but when I asked him last if I should continue this huge commitment or instead read 4 shorter books with that time, he said he really couldn’t remember much about it. Not remembering an 800-page book you read less than 5 years ago concerns me that it might not be fantastic.
Got to agree with you about Levin, but I’ve no sympathy for the husband. According to my Kindle, I’m 34% into the book and so far I’m pleasantly surprised at myself for staying focused. Kindle ownership has encouraged me to read the classics. Greatest accomplshment so far was Hugo (Les Miserables) -trying to stay focused through the history lessons and detailed explanation of the sewage system of Paris was a doozie.
I don’t remember that scene from the musical. But perhaps it will be in the movie? Your comment reminds me that I need to ask for a Kindle for Christmas…
And to think I always thought of you as one of my most literary friends… Welcome back to the show. You can postpone reading my book until you’ve refamiliarized yourself with, well, literature.
i WAS one of your most literary friends. i will get back there again. the synopsis of your book almost threw my back out, i strained so hard to understand it
Yoona! I love you! Finally someone agrees with me on the characters. Selfish wench? Totally! Levin? Definitely – at least until the teeth scene. Have you gotten to the teeth scene?
no, i haven’t!!! and you just gave me a reason to push through to the end of this thing. well, besides my pride
I’ve never managed Tolstoy, presumably down to trying War and Peace first. I stalled about page 10 years ago and never picked it up again. I do enjoy the real classics, however, Homer, Plato and Tolkien magic books 😉
hector has my vote for the most badass character in all literature. huge crush
Why does good writing seem even better than good speech? I’d like to read that book. Does it count if I have someone read it to me?
Probably because it’s more permanent, you can dwell on it and re-read it and roll it around on the tongue and enjoy it in a more tactile way than just hearing the words. And yes it counts, at least in my book
i’ll stick w cormack mccarthy and roger angell for my reading enjoyment for now…but you do look GREAT in that fur hat!!
oh man tom cried for days when he read The Road. it was rather alarming. no animals were hurt in the making of my doctored photo, btw
“. . . hunky piece of ass.” Ha!!! Love it!!
heathcliff. it even sounds hot
Tom is clearly of higher than average intelligence and has very particular (read:fine) taste. He is so lucky he found you (AND that you were interested once he did). As one of the stalwarts of the “everybody else in the world” group, I can only say we are all very happy for both of you (except for when we’re not, but that’s not today so…onward!)
tom has great taste except when it comes to food. i have no idea if he adores me as much as levin worshipped kitty, but i suppose if he did, i would probably respect him less. isn’t that the way of it? 😛
I am guessing Tom wants you just as much, but he doesn’t NEED you the way Levin had-to-have Kitty, so you can keep your respect safely where it belongs. (How you doing with your Mom playing away games all this holiday season?)